Archive for November, 2010


30 Nov

Salt's delicate oxtail consomme - you can never be too thin and too rich

I seem to be reviewing restaurants all the time these days. Not unlike the last 24 years of my life – only it’s new and weird having to pay with my own money. Unsponsored, I must also step back, most reluctantly, from return visits to the city’s established supernovae, concentrating instead on the youngest stars that glitter in the streaming welkin (my daughter is a Pearl, so I claim a co-paternal allegiance to the author of that particular Middle English metaphor). In other words, I’ll have to stick to reviewing new places in Toronto, not old champions. To wit, Salt rather than Chiado. And while we’re busy articulating mandates, I might as well mention that I’ll only post blogs of places I enjoy. Unlike many people in my line of work, I have never taken pleasure in trashing a sub-par operation. I see it as a waste of my time and yours.

So. Where were we? Oh yes: Salt. The latest Ossington opening, right next door to the outrageously popular Pizza Libretto and just a few doors along from the always delightful Foxley. I’ve had my eye on Salt for the best part of a year, waiting patiently for it to open. It’s the brainchild of William Tavares, currently making a name for himself in the business, with input from someone I know better – Albino Silva, creator of Chiado, Adega, Circo, Oasi and the brilliant but only occasionally open Senhor Antonio tapas bar. But the place has had issues since the summertime, denied a liquor licence by a moratorium inspired by councillor Joe Pantalone. Now that little prohibition has been lifted and the party has begun.

They say books furnish a room, but wine bottles can be just as effective. Salt’s long narrow space is lined with dark wooden shelves filled with bottles of wine and fabulous Portuguese olive oils, jars of preserves and packets of Lusitanian goodies. Everything is for sale – this is a shop as well as a wine bar; meanwhile the inventory provides a homey but handsome decor, glistening in the candlelight and the dim glow of mismatched crystal chandeliers. Salt doesn’t take reservations (which may suit the staff but is deeply annoying for customers) so the four of us arrived at 6:30 to be sure of getting a table and found the room completely empty. By 7:30, however, it was packed with a young crowd all talking earnestly over the music until the sound level climbed uncomfortably high.

By then we were deep in our plates. The menu is curiously hard to read through, broken up into a dozen categories such as cheeses, charcuterie, grilled or fried or vegetables or alla plancha… all tapas-sized dishes with an Iberian slant,  which are just about big enough for two people to enjoy but look like awfully short commons for a group of four. So we just kept on ordering more.

There was a very fine oxtail consommé served in a small red casserole, the broth thin and rich, perfumed with a mirepoix of root vegetables and sweetened with sherry and agra dolce onions. Another soup was an elegant purée of  jerusalem artichokes and leeks with a hit of truffle oil – equally effective at blunting the edge of hunger.

Of the three bocadillos, we chose one that set a hearty but soft-textured chorizo sausage in a soft bun moistened with mustard aïoli and caramelized onions. Two salads seemed a tad too similar, each built around a steep hill of arugula. One dressed the greens with a sherry vinaigrette and garnished it with candied pecans, julienned fresh pear and litle nubs of delectably powerful Valdeon, a ripe Spanish blue cheese. The other presented a tarragon citrus vinaigrette with firm striped beets, goat cheese and crumbled marcona almonds.

More arugula bulked out my favourite dish of the evening – finger-sized pieces of amazingly tender Galician octopus decorated with pine nuts and slices of cherry tomato over wee dabs of tapenade. Salt cod croquettes were yieldingly soft inside a delicate golden crust, perfect for dipping into a robust parsley aïoli. From the meaty end of the menu, pork belly seemed a little dry under its delicately crisped skin, Braised wagyu short ribs had the rich, sweet, sticky meat falling from the bone onto a pillow of garlicky mashed potato. And then there were frites (very good ones) to fill in the corners of our appetites, and a selection of cheeses (more Valdeon), a taste of the machine-cut Serrano ham, a wedge of super-creamy, dense chocolate tart…

Chef Dave Kemp has an interesting pedigree – Avalon as a cook, Splendido for two years as a chef de partie in the David Lee era, then Prego della Piazza as chef de cuisine in its twilight years. This is his first kitchen, and he’s doing an admirable job. From the customer’s point of view, it’s a casual and unstructured way of eating that denies the kitchen much chance to create an ordered progression of experiences. But such freedom can be lovely when the company is good and the wine is flowing. Did I mention the wine? Here Albino Silva’s hand is most clearly seen for the list is jewelled with Portuguese treats – the good stuff that is never seen at the LCBO – reasonably priced, though I wish more were available by the glass.

And don’t leave without a bottle of superb CARM olive oil from the deepest Douro – the one with the black label.

Salt can be found at 225 Ossington Avenue (just south of Dundas Street West). 416 533 7258.


Ici – J-P Challet’s noble bistronomy

27 Nov

Shrimp frites with rouille ravioli


Things fall apart. The words come from Yeats – from his apocalyptic poem The Second Coming, but another brilliant writer borrowed them for the title of a book. “Oh, you mean Chinua Achebe,” said the waitress at Ici, “the great Nigerian novelist.” It’s good when a keen young mind can come to the rescue of a fading memory. And she waited table impeccably, too.

Things come together. I wrote about Ici when it finally opened in October, happy for chef Jean-Pierre Challet and his co-owner, Jennifer Decorte, that the two-year gestation was over. Last week, my wife and I decided we had given them a long enough period of grace and went in for dinner. We were lucky the super-friendly Decorte was able to find us a table. The chic, modern little space on the corner of Harbord and Manning is packed every night from five-thirty to closing time, already a hit with the neighbourhood and a destination for loyal Challet fans from across the GTA. With good reason. For those of us who have followed him since his dazzling Ontario sojourn at the Inn at Manitou in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the news couldn’t be better: J-P is back.

We sat on surprisingly comfortable stools at a counter in the window – a good idea if one has anything remotely private to discuss, as the small tables in the main area of the room are closely set. The menu was full of things we wanted to eat, with every dish available in a large or smaller portion (such an attractive idea) backed up with five or six items for sharing – a plate of oysters perhaps, or charcuterie or a selection of little croquettes. An amuse arrived from the open kitchen while we were making up our minds – a tiny fried crab cake full of sapid crab meat with a chili-spiked mayo for dipping. The big flavour and delicate texture turned out to be typical of the meal that followed. Here were plump juicy shrimp that had been wrapped in potato strings and then swiftly fried so that the potato turned into crisp frite bondage. A rich, silky aïoli shared the plate and then the lily was gilded with three tender, fine ravioli filled with garlicky, red-peppery rouille. A dab of pureed beetroot added startling colour. Another starter brought a goat cheese tart like a miniature quiche made with Challet’s soft, flaky pastry filled with mild melted goat cheese and tangy shallots caramelized with sugar and balsamic. Beside it was a fresh salad of frisée and mache, a single disc shaved from a raw golden beet, and a mound of grated celeriac in a traditional lemon and mustard-spiked mayonnaise dressing.

Challet’s mission these days is to reinterpret classical French bistro ideas in a modern, lightweight manner, sometimes redistributing the elements of a dish. So blanquette of veal arrives as a soft, very thin crepe wrapped around the juicy pulled meat with its white mushroom sauce. Chopped morels and black trumpet mushrooms reinforced the theme in a darker, richer truffled sauce. A cube of perfectly cooked boiled potato, a trembling flan of puréed squash seasoned with lots of white pepper, green beans and strips of heirloom purple carrots as thin as pencils completed the dish.

Magret of duck "Apicius"

Duck magret “Apicius” was our other main course – an old recipe honouring the ancient Roman food writer. The duck’s skin had been marinated with honey, fennel, saffron and anise then fried until the skin was slightly crisp, the layer of fat almost rendered away and the lean breast still ruby-rare. The trick is to cook it long enough to tenderize and bring out the flavour of the meat but not to overcook – a trick of which Challet is the master. The thickly sliced magret was laid over big chunks of sautéed chanterelles beside admirably crusty scalloped potatoes and squeaky green beans.

To follow there are cheeses or a Grand Marnier soufflé that takes 20 minutes to make from scratch. We ordered the lemon trio and it turned out to be a brilliant decision. On the plate was a scoop of creamy lemon ice cream, a lemon tart that I think is the best in the city – the curd exactly sour enough, the pastry ethereal, and a lemon chiboust. Chiboust is best described as the caramelized top of a gâteau St-Honoré that some greedy gastronome has ordered on its own – a layer of stiff lemon pastry cream studded with whole blueberries and topped with very soft Italian meringue which has been caramelized to a light tan with a blow torch. Heavenly.

Challet is a qualified sommelier as well as a chef and suggests a couple of matches by the glass with every dish. His wine list is a thing of beauty with Canadian bottlings outnumbering French and certain local producers strongly favoured – Southbrook, Flat Rock, Malivoire, Ravine, Lailey and Peninsula Ridge the names that leap most readily from the page. Mark-ups are reasonable and most are available in 3-oz or 6-oz pours. Like the menu, the list will change frequently.

It’s great to have Challet back in the saddle, cooking such graceful bistronomy.

Ici is open for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday. 538 Manning Street (at Harbord). 416 536 0079.


Play Food and Wine, Ottawa

24 Nov

The nation's capital

“Do you see? Do you see what I mean? It’s happened again! You promised just a snack…”

“Hush, my love…”

“Just a morsel of lunch, you said… Just tapas! And you end up eating everything on the menu!”

“Not everything, cara mia. But one can’t ignore a chef’s own charcuterie…”

My stomach and I have been having these little talks lately. Thanks to Gold Medal Plates and six weeks of serious cross-country eating I now have to put up with this constant rumble of reproachful complaint from El Gordo, the belted one.

One recent mezzogiorno, we found ourselves in Ottawa and wandered down to the Byward Market, thinking of a bite of lunch at Domus or Eighteen. One was full and the other only open for dinner but fortunately I was armed with an ideal vade mecum, the latest, bran-new edition of Capital Dining, the definitive Ottawa restaurant guide written by my friend Anne DesBrisay, longtime restaurant critic for the Ottawa Citizen. So we found our way swiftly to Play, the cadet establishment to eight-year-old Beckta Dining & Wine.

Play occupies two storeys of a sturdy building directly across the road from the fortress-like American embassy. A cheerful colour scheme has the walls painted cerulean blue, a ceiling of billowing orange fabric and glossy little wooden tables that aren’t quite big enough to be comfortable.

At Beckta, chef Michael Moffatt and owner-sommelier Stephen Beckta offer some of the capital’s most serious fine dining; here they’re at play with a menu of small plates, lots of cheeses and charcuterie and a really interesting wine list loaded with treats and with Canada well represented. At lunchtime, you can order any two plates for $20 which simplifies everything, and Beckta has paired every dish on the menu with a cleverly chosen wine available in 3oz or 5oz pours.

Yes, we began with charcuterie. The kitchen buys in Mario Pingue’s silky prosciutto from Niagara and also the coarse chobai sausage made at Cheese Boutique in Toronto from fine Winnipeg Berkshire pork. Moffatt also does some meats of his own – a brisket and a dense, stiff country paté with the texture of meat loaf. It came in slices, cold from the fridge, and frankly outclassed by the accompanying condiment, a luminously flavourful compote of beet and raspberry.

Catfish tacos - yum yum

Chunks of soft pink beet and big seedless cubes of chilled Californian watermelon starred in the next course, a salad of grilled romaine lettuce with nubs of soft, mild goat cheese and a big smear of cashew purée on the plate. Not a bad dish, but we had tasted nothing yet to write home about.

Catfish tacos changed all that. Piping hot, moist, fluffy fillets of catfish in a peppery crust were served on a bed of shaved brussels sprouts on top of firmish round tacos that tasted delectably of corn. A mashed tomatillo salad was fresh and sharp and a sweetish salsa of edamame and chopped peppers added a sort of succotash component in the same continental key.

The waiter (otherwise so friendly and smart) should probably have warned me that my next dish was eerily similar to the tacos, but it too tasted great so I wasn’t remotely dismayed. Moffatt had set a piece of cumin butter to melt on a crisp-skinned slab of pickerel and paired it with actual bean, corn and pepper succotash nicely spiked with jalapeño.

Then there was the hanger steak, marinated for 24 hours with tamari, citrus, mirin and brown sugar so that its surface caramelized and crusted during its brief time on the grill while the heart of the meat was crimson as a blush. Excellent frites were heaped alongside and some sautéed mushrooms hidden beneath the sliced meat. Upon request, a ramekin of salsa verde replaced the advertised aïoli.

"Apple Pie Napoleon"... my Waterloo

Somehow room was found for dessert, though not without mutterings from behind my tie. The menu called it apple pie Napoloeon but it was made with diced and lightly cooked quince between tissues of phyllo, backed up by stiff vanilla-almond custard. The plate was finished with quince sauce, berries and a rich cinnamon ice cream.

“Happy now?” demanded my belly as it led the way back to the hotel.

Play Food and Wine is open daily for lunch and dinner at 1 York Street, Ottawa. 613 667 9207.


Paese II

21 Nov

Paese's dining room before the crowd floods in

For 21 years, Tony Loschiavo has owned and operated the always reliable, sometimes excellent Paese up on Bathurst Street, also using the premises as HQ of his successful catering business, L’EAT Catering. This summer, he opened a second Paese, down on the theatre strip of King Street West. Why there, for goodness sake? Because there has always been a decent Italian presence acting as anchors of quality in the neighbourhood – La Fenice, in its heyday, and KitKat spring to mind. Also, Loschiavo has looked around and seen the efflorescence of condominia, the rash of boutique hotels, the arrival of the Bell TIFF Lightbox building and attendant business. He opened just in time for the G20 summit to destroy a month of downtown restaurant-going, picked up speed again during TIFF and is now motoring strong – almost too strong on a Saturday night when he does capacity and then some before the theatres fill at eight o’clock, followed by a packed second seating. Energy levels in the room soar but timing and service systems are challenged during the turnaround and the hubbub can tire older, more sensitive ears. I found a lunchtime visit, earlier in the week, far more conducive to conversation and a proper appreciation of the food.

I like what the team has done to the space. It looks very modern, with clean lines and open brick unadorned with any art. Grey or orange panels add interest and wooden columns break up the air in the centre of the room. One major asset is Master Sommelier Bruce Wallner who is in the process of putting together a powerful list with deep strength in Italian wines. The night we were there he opened some rare treats from Northern Italy – Brovia’s 2009 Roero Arneis from Piedmont, for example, and Josko  Gravner’s 2004 Ribolla Gialla from Friuli, a glorious thing, aged in amphorae, honeyed but bone dry. The house mark-up across the list is extremely attractive – LCBO price plus $25 – so, the better the wine, the better the bargain.

Chef Christopher Palik does double duty between the two Paese locations and also heads the catering business. His menu reads nicely, suggesting unpretentious but interesting Italian food, using local ingredients and making just about everything in-house. He has his own take on Stracciatella, presenting a whole poached egg in the bowl of very pure, lightweight, parsley-flecked chicken broth. How many spoonfuls of virginal virtue does one take before using the spoon on the egg, releasing that rich liquid yolk into the soup? The loss of innocence is a small price to pay for such sensual pleasure.

Pastas are helpfully available in full or half portions. Hand-formed cavatelli is currently a popular species in Toronto and Ottawa restaurants – here the soft little rods come with diced potato, nicely chewy diced sopressata, chopped parsley, rather salty but tasty clams in their shells and a little thin, clam-fragrant broth to keep everything lubricated.

Mains make use of interesting proteins. A roasted fillet of steelhead trout is wonderful – medium rare with a crispy skin. It comes with creamed parsnips that have been whipped too long until their starchy texture turns gummy and a garlicky salsa verde – a pesto in all but name.

Chef Chris Palik's porchetta - domestic bliss

Slow-roasted porchetta tastes of fennel and rosemary, the crackling crunchy, the fat almost perfectly rendered down (but not quite). It appears on a pillow of creamy polenta like an island in a pool of meaty jus.

Side dishes of vegetables are total show stealers – pan-finished brussels sprouts with diced bacon (heaven) or firm, almost crunchy purple, orange and yellow heirloom carrots, halved lengthways and dressed with maple syrup and fresh orange.

Sharing a dessert is a good idea for portions are generous. Cioccolato is a dark, dense, cakey terrine striped with white chocolate mousse and topped with crunchy nut brittle. Nutella (that addictive European chocolate-hazelnut spread) is also an ingredient – though some would consider it to be more a way of life. Bruce Wallner found the perfect wine for such luxe cocoa madness – Justino’s 10-year-old Malvasia Madeira.

Nicely positioned between the neighbourhood glamour of Ame and Luma and the tourist-oriented dives of the strip, this Paese should serve well as a weekly haunt for discerning locals – especially wine lovers.

Paese downtown is open every day from 11:30 am to midnight. 33 King Street West (close to Peter Street), 647 977-2638.


St. John’s Gold Medal Plates

19 Nov

Gold Medal Winner Jeremy Charles

Well, there you have it… The 2010 Gold Medal Plates campaign is officially concluded, the wonderful envoi a tremendous do in St. John’s, Newfoundland – and no, there is nowhere on the planet where better shindigs are thrown. So many highlights to remember, especially Jim Cuddy and Anne Lindsay playing along with Alan Doyle and Sean McCann of Great Big Sea… Stupendous energy, but it was the quality of the food that blew me away – the best of the campaign. Senior Judge Karl Wells did a magnificent job winnowing down the possible competitors. We had eight chefs giving their all tonight, and I do not exaggerate when I say that any of the top four or five of them would have won in three or four of our other cities. The bar was raised fifty feet tonight in Newfoundland. (And the bar was razed at the after-party at the Majestic, a lovely club just down the street from the Convention Centre. I’m quite sure they are still rocking on as I write.)

Roary MacPherson's dish won bronze

The bronze medal went to chef Roary MacPherson of Oppidan who told us he had created his dish based on flavours and recipes from his childhood. There was a dark block of local pork belly braised in molasses and anise, the texture rich and heavy, as pork belly should be, the flavour savoury-sweet and profound. He set the meat over a smooth, pale purée of bubble-and-squeak made with potato, cabbage and a hint of salt pork. Shavings of house-made gouda sharpened with bakeapple added extra richness while a trace of partridgeberry-cherry syrup contributed an elusive sweetness and picked up the cherry aromatics of the wine. A ragout of tender white beans in a soft stewed apple matrix was a delectably down-home starch while the garnish was an ethereal macaron flavoured with traditional Newfoundland mustard pickle (we call it picallili in England). Chef chose a wine from the west to compliment his creation – the Haynes Barn Merlot-Cabernet from Prospect Winery in B.C.’s Okanagan valley.

Tak Ishiwata took silver

The silver medal was awarded to Tak Ishiwata of Basho. He prepared a ceviche of lobster, scallop and whelk, each tasting as if it had been in the ocean moments before, the textures unique and distinct, the tender morsels wrapped in a pashmina of raw sea bass fillet. Instead of cilantro and lime, he used yuzu juice and shiso to cure the flavourful marine elements, and finished the dish with a sprig of shiso florets, the basil-menthol aroma creating a herbal aura around everything. There was a tart, intensely sapid jelly of grape tomatoes beside the benthic bundle and a dark brown stripe of preserved plum on the plate to boost the acidity. Shredded daikon cooled things down; pomegranate juice brought it up again. The garnish of a small, crunchy deep-fried shrimp chip added a different texture. Chef offered a cocktail with the dish – a sweet concoction of local Shiver vodka over muddled cucumber, melon and yuzu, the glass prepared with a shiso-sugar rim. It was delicious, fruity, but needed more acidity to reach out to the flavours on the plate.

Jeremy Charles's golden plate

Chef Jeremy Charles of the bran-new restaurant Raymonds won the gold medal by a unanimous decision. As I added up the marks for his dish – presentation, texture, taste, originality, wine-match, wow factor – I realized I had never awarded such a high score to any chef’s work in any regional, national or international competition I had ever judged. Try as I might, I could find no fault with his dish. Raymonds has assembled a dream team in the kitchen, including last year’s St. John’s champion Ivan Kutyukchev and the brilliant young baker from Ravine winery in Ontario, Erin Turcke. But this was Charles’s dish. It began in the wilds of the province with the trapping of some 60 wild rabbits. Wild rabbit meat is dark and flavourful but also lean and delicately textured. Charles used the complete lapin. The tiny ribs were frenched and cooked as if they were a rack of lamb – elfin but succulent. The livers were turned into a rich, creamy, silken mousse fashioned into a teaspoon-sized quenelle and set upon a coin of fresh brioche. A purée of Jerusalem artichoke grounded a rich but refined ragout of local brussels sprouts moistened with rabbit jus and spiked with rabbit bacon. A crisp little ravioli held braised rabbit meat, local chanterelle duxelles, a hint of date for sweetness and Canadian feta for salty tang – a spectacularly complex mouthful. Then there was the roulade of confited rabbit meat enhanced with duck fat, juniper and chives and pressed around the wee loin – an impeccably tender roll. Against such a doll’s-house display of miniaturist technique, a firm, thimble-sized turned carrot soused in honey and butter seemed positively butch. The harmonies were in perfect pitch, the wine match – a 2008 Merlot from Ravine Vineyard in St. David’s, Ontario – faultless.

Jeremy Charles won silver last year when he was chef at Atlantica. Next year, he is hosting the pan-Canadian Chefs’ Congress here in St. John’s. I think he will be going into the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna as a very serious contender for the ultimate prize.

Before signing off, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a heartfelt thankyou to all the judges across the country who so generously volunteered their time and expertise to Gold Medal Plates. Our Senior Judges are invaluable, playing the major role in choosing the chefs who will compete in each city and coming together to form the adjudicatory panel for the Canadian Culinary Championships. In Vancouver, two men share the duties – writer and international food and wine judge Sid Cross and food writer and editor Andrew Morrison. In Edmonton, it’s Chef Instructor Clayton Folkers, former captain of the Canadian National Culinary Team. In Calgary, author, food writer, teacher and broadcaster John Gilchrist is our Senior Judge. Food writer, editor and broadcaster CJ Katz covers Saskatchewan for us. Food writer, editor and columnist Sasha Chapman is our Senior Judge in Toronto. Anne DesBrisay, revered restaurant critic for the Ottawa Citizen, heads our Ottawa-Gatineau panel. Robert Beauchemin, author, teacher and gastronomic journalist is our Montréal Senior Judge. Food writer and broadcaster Karl Wells leads the team in St. John’s.

One other duty we ask of each of our Senior Judges is that they guide us in assembling a panel of judges in their city – food writers, chef instructors, chefs, restaurant critics, all of them professional culinarians – to adjudicate the Gold Medal Plates regional events and award gold, silver and bronze medals to the successful competitors. These judges, volunteering their time, provide the backbone of credibility that makes our Gold Medal Plates events more than just fund-raising galas. They have now become the most significant gastronomic competitions in Canada.

So a huge thank you to our judges across the country during the last campaign: in Vancouver, John Bishop, Barbara-Jo McIntosh and Lesley Stowe; in Edmonton, Liane Faulder, Gail Hall and Chris Wood; in Calgary, Michael Allemeier, Susan Hopkins and Michael Noble; in Saskatchewan, Trent Brears, Amy Jo Ehman, Vince LaPointe and dee Hobsbawn-Smith; in Toronto, Christine Cushing, John Higgins, Anita Stewart and Lucy Waverman; in Ottawa-Gatineau, Pam Collacott, Margaret Dickenson, Chris Knight and Judson Simpson; in Montréal, Julian Armstrong and Lesley Chesterman; in St. John’s, Bob Arneil, Tom Beckett, Kitty Drake and Cynthia Stone. Mes amis, let’s do it all again next year!


Ottawa-Gatineau Gold Medal Plates

17 Nov

Michael Moffatt's golden dish - the plate top left has the duck draped over the kimchi; the plate in the foreground is as yet unblessed.

On the road again… I love my involvement with Gold Medal Plates. Crossing the country as we do makes me feel as if I’m in some kind of rock band, swinging into town, doing our show, then moving on. I get to see my fellow culinary judges and catch up with what’s cooking in their communities, hobnob with real heroes and heroines from the worlds of sports and entertainment, and relive golden moments from Canada’s recent Olympic and Paralympic triumphs. And I love the cause. By the end of the year we will have raised well over $5 million for our athletes and also, I like to think, tightened the national network of culinarians, chef instructors, chefs, food writers, winemakers, brewers and distillers that GMP has built up over the years in this gastronomically engaged but far-flung country.

Last Tuesday night, it was Ottawa-Gatineau’s turn as we blew in to the National Arts Centre in the heart of the nation’s capital for the penultimate event of the regional campaign. I don’t think another guest could have been squeezed in but the mood was merry and energetic, enlivened by the 100-or-so sous chefs, cooks and accomplices who manned the chefs’ stations and then lined the mezzanine balcony, looking down on the splendour of the celebration tables. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a “peanut gallery” but it was a great place to enjoy the show put on by the athletes (led by Alexandre Bilodeau) and our genius troubadours Jim Cuddy, Anne Lindsay, Holly Cole and Aaron Davis.

The evening began with the VIP reception where last year’s local champion (and Canadian Culinary Championship bronze medallist) Matthew Carmichael served superb spot prawn tacos (divine with our Ontario bubblies). Then, promptly at six o’clock, the serious eating began. Without exception, this year’s dishes were imaginatively complex, elaborately garnished and beautiful to look at. The judges, sequestered for once in their own lair, were divided about the eventual order of the gold and silver medallists – but when the marks were finally totalled a clear winner emerged.

Ross and Simon Fraser won bronze

Our bronze medal was awarded to Ross and Simon Fraser, brothers, co-chefs and owners of Fraser Café. Their dish consisted of two major elements. To the right, a well seasoned, pan-seared fillet of ling cod was admirably moist and fluffy, sitting above a lightweight but appropriately spicy curry of fenugreek and brown mustardseeds in a delicate coconut sauce. Cubes of juicy white melon mitigated the chili heat in the curry. A crisp miniature papadom sat on the fish like a jaunty hat. On the other side of the plate, the chefs had julienned a cool, crunchy slaw of cucumber, carrot and radish and crowned it with a plump B.C. spot prawn – a delicious mouthful. While the two parts of the dish were unabashedly distinct they shared a most attractive balance of flavour intensities. The chefs chose the crisp, aromatic 2008 Artist Series Gewurztraminer from Hillebrand Estate Winery in Niagara, Ontario.

Caroline Ishii's vegan silver creation

Taking the silver medal, Chef Caroline Ishii of Zen Kitchen presented the first-ever vegan dish in Gold Medal Plates history. It looked spectacular, topped with a crisp tube of fried, applewood-smoked yuba (dried soy milk skin) filled with fermented macadamia curd that tasted like richly nutty cream cheese. The principal element was a ragout of exotic mushrooms from local grower Le Coprin set over a truffled mushroom sauce, and a drum of polenta, creamy within, golden and crispy on the surface. A thin disc of beet-and-red-pepper aspic crowned the drum, which sat on two little sheets of seared green kale dressed with a kombu-plum wine vinaigrette. A conserve of fruity passilla peppers finished a most seductive dish. Chef Ishii’s wine was the crisp, refreshing 2008 Archangel Sparkling Pinot Noir from Angels Gate winery in Niagara, Ontario.

Our gold medal was won by Chef Michael Moffatt of Beckta Dining & Wine, who also won gold in 2007. His dish consisted of three separate components and Chef explained the order in which they should be eaten. To begin, a slice of bacon-wrapped rabbit terrine sat on a crisp horseradish cracker. “Making terrines is becoming a lost art,” pointed out one of the judges, but Moffatt has clearly mastered it. This one was packed densely with lean, tender meat and crowned with a little relish of pickled watermelon rind and some opal basil seedlings. The second part of the dish was a fork upon which was impaled the super-tender tentacles of a grilled squid which were wrapped tightly with freshly made herb linguine dressed with a rich, velvet-textured bonemarrow butter sauce. “When you’ve eaten it, use the fork for the third element,” instructed Chef Moffatt, referring to slices of duck breast, seared to give just the right amount of texture to the skin while rendering down the fat beneath it but leaving the tender flesh attractively pink. Hidden beneath the duck lay some crunchy, intensely flavourful kimchi of cabbage, green bean and garlic scapes. Chef Moffatt turned to a generously fruity, off-dry aromatic white for his pairing – the 2008 Pinot Gris from Fielding Estates in Niagara.

So our team of gastronomic gladiators for next February’s Canadian Culinary Championship is almost complete. Martin Juneau from La Montée in Montreal, Andrew Fung from Blackhawk Golf Club outside Edmonton, Robert Clark of C in Vancouver, Dan Walker of Weczeria Food and Wine in Saskatoon, Frank Dodd of Hillebrand Winery restaurant in Niagara, Duncan Ly of Hotel Arts Raw Bar in Calgary and now Michael Moffatt of Beckta Dining & Wine in Ottawa will line up against whoever emerges as the winner of our last event in St. John’s on Thursday night. The excitement grows.


Calgary Gold Medal Plates

13 Nov

Chef Duncan Ly's gold-medal-winning dish

After two years at the Round-up Centre, Gold Medal Plates returned to the Hyatt Regency for its Calgary jamboree on Friday night. With yet another sold-out crowd on what is proving to be a record-breakingly successful campaign, the great ballroom was buzzing with energy. Jim Cuddy, Anne Lindsay and Colin James played as superbly as ever and Alexandre Bilodeau was greeted with a standing ovation as we remembered his awesome gold medal – the first gold ever won by a Canadian on Canadian soil. Indeed, the entire video of highlights from the Vancouver Olympics had the whole crowd cheering (and quite a few people becoming misty-eyed with patriotism).

Gastronomically, it was also a most memorable occasion. Former Canadian Culinary Champion Hayato Okamitsu was in the audience – he’s now teaching at SAIT – and last year’s Calgary gold medallist, Jan Hrabek of Crazyweed in Canmore provided delectable canapés for the VIP reception before being inducted into the Gold Medal Plates Hall of Fame. Standards were as high as we could remember among the ten competing chefs and only a fraction of a percentage point separated fourth place from third.

Chef Justin Leboe's bronze-medal dish before the saffron cream was poured on

Our bronze medallist was chef Justin Leboe, whose new restaurant, Model Milk, is about to take Calgary by storm. He made a confit of steelhead trout, setting a square fillet of the meltingly tender fish against the side of a bowl and dusting it with fine black ashes made from charred leek and celery. A salad of tangy chanterelles, soft leek and miniature potato crisps was strewn with chopped dill, chives and marigold petals then a warm saffron potato cream was poured into the bowl from a jug to finish the beautifully presented and colourful dish. Chef Leboe’s interesting choice of wine – the rich, limpid 2009 Chardonnay from Laughing Stock winery in British Columbia – provoked a good deal of discussion among the judges.

The silver medal was awarded to chef Shaun Desaulniers of Belgo who has won both silver and bronze in years gone by. This time, he worked with Nagano pork tenderloin from Quebec, slow-cooked at 180 degrees until it was pink and trembling. The thick slice of meat was crowned with a wedge of St. André cheese so meltingly ripe it was almost a sauce. Tiny crunchy little sticks

This dish won silver for chef Shaun Desaulniers

scattered on top looked like crisped potatoes but turned out to be Macintosh apple and there was more apple, chopped as a brunoise, among the perfectly cooked, bacon-flecked brown lentils that served as a pillow for the pork. A lovely apple cider gastrique had the sweet-tangy flavour to freshen the entire dish and worked very well indeed with the wine Chef Desaulniers chose, the 2007 Pinot Noir from Noble Ridge in B.C.

Our gold medallist had also stood on our podium twice before, earning silver in 2007 and 2009: chef Duncan Ly of Hotel Arts Raw Bar. The main event on his plate was a perfectly crisp, piping hot beignet stuffed with a rich, tangy mixture of tender braised beef cheek spiked with the intensity of sour cherry. While the flavour combination reminded Senior Judge John Gilchrist of classic Persian cooking the entire judiciary was full of admiration for the technical feat of making 550 beignets of such impeccable texture. The other major element on Chef Ly’s dish was some sleek, thickly sliced salmon gravlax cured with coriander and citrus zest and served over a lightly dressed salad of grated celeriac. Braised beef and gravlax? It was a courageous pairing that looked downright odd on paper but it somehow worked marvellously well thanks to a bridge ingredient – the finely minced shallots in a tomato confit vinaigrette prettied up with pink flower petals. The wine was also an effective ambassador between the meat and the fish – a great choice – Tantalus 2008 Pinot Noir from B.C.

I wish I had been able to present the gorgeous etched-steel 18-karat gold winner’s plate to chef Ly up there on the podium but he had already left the building, rushing home to be with his wife and their first baby, born just 24 hours earlier. Sous chef Colin Metcalfe accepted the trophy on his chef’s behalf.

So now we have six champions lined up for the Canadian Culinary Championships next February in the Okanagan – with only Ottawa-Gatineau and St. John’s remaining in what has been, in this reporter’s opinion, the most exciting Gold Medal Plates campaign ever.


Laura Catena’s wines

11 Nov

Laura Catena in one of her vineyards

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting a most impressive woman – Laura Catena. In her native Mendoza, Argentina, she is the vice president of Bodega Catena Zapata, one of the most innovative and iconic wineries in the country. With her father, Nicolas, she is responsible for wines under the Catena, Catena Alta, Catena Zapata, Tilia and Alamos labels. She is also the owner and founder of Luca wines and creator of La Posta winery, which showcases wines made from the grapes of prodigiously gifted smallholders and farmers. Oh yes and she’s also a full-time emergency room doctor in San Francisco where she lives with her husband and three children. In her spare time she has written a book, just published, that is the most thorough, savvy and interesting introduction to the Argentinean wine industry I have ever read. It’s called Vino Argentino and is published by Chronicle Books. I found my copy at the Cookbook Store. Yesterday, she was in town for a day of public relations events then off to New York for more of the same. So I was lucky to be one of the two wine writers (David Lawrason the other) that her Toronto agent, Alex Gaunt of Trialto, invited to his Liberty Village office for a tasting.

After whetting our palates with a little crisp, aromatic Tilia Torrontes (the only Torrontes at the LCBO these days and a fine example of that perfumed grape) we began with the Luca Chardonnay 2008. We don’t see much high-end Argentinean Chardonnay in Ontario though it’s the grape that first lured the world to take an interest in Argentinean wine, back in the 1990s. This one is grown at 5000 feet in Tupungato, in the foothills of the Andes where the sunlight is fiercely bright but the temperatures pretty much Burgundian. It’s gorgeous – full-bodied, ripe, full of intense aromas and flavours of tropical and citrus fruit but with a fresh, minerally finale. It sells for less than $30 and is worth every cent.

We also tasted La Posta Bonarda 2008 an elegant floral red. After Malbec, Bonarda is the most planted red variety in Argentina. With their strong Italian heritage, most Argentineans assume it is the same grape as the northern Italian Bonarda – “They have willed it to be Italian,” says Laura Catena. As she points out in her book however, it’s actually a French grape – the Charbonneau from Savoie. Look how well it has done in Argentina!

Ditto Malbec, of course. But here we should correct an often-heard mistake. Malbec is rare in France these days – confined to the inky wines of Cahors and almost extinct in its native Bordeaux, though it is still listed as an allowed component of the Bordeaux blend. People assume it must always have played a minor role in Bordeaux but in fact it was an equal player with Cabernet Sauvignon until the phylloxera blight in the last quarter of the 19th century, when Europe’s vineyards were all but wiped out. The solution, as we all know, was to replant with American rootstock, immune to phylloxera, but Malbec did not take kindly to the process. Merlot did – which is why Merlot is now Cabernet’s companion in Bordeaux instead of noble Malbec.

Catena Alta Malbec

Fortunately for the world, Malbec had already been taken to Argentina and was doing well. We can taste how well today in the wines Laura Catena poured for us yesterday. Catena Malbec is available at Vintages for around $20. If I had to pick one Argentinean Malbec as the archetype of the style it would be this one. Laura puts it more poetically: “This is the Chanel jacket of Argentinean wine,” classic, elegant and always appropriate. It’s a blend of fruit from five of the estate’s vineyards, including some very high altitude plantings for heady aromatics and some in the lower-lying Maipu region for richness and warmth. “I despise flabbiness in wines,” says Laura – hence the bright acidity that underpins all the rich black fruit and makes this such a successful food wine.

Then there is Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino. We tasted the 2005 yesterday. It sells at around $90. There’s a much bigger qualitative gap between a $10 wine and a $20 wine than there is between a $40 and a $100 wine. And at these exalted levels we’re looking for more than raw power and intensity. The Zapata is no heavyweight. It is sublimely elegant and balanced, limpid and smooth. What makes it so remarkable is its amazing length. The sense of the fruit, the spice, the aromatic harmony lingers on the palate for a long long time before it starts to fade. And though this wine is already five years old it still tastes wonderfully juicy and young. These very high Andean vineyards receive huge amounts of pure sunshine but it’s the labour-intensive detail in the vineyard that pays such a dividend. Some great wines are made from specific areas of a single vineyard. This wine is made from specific individual vines, each one marked with a red ribbon – the Malbec apotheosis.


Glutton for Pleasure

08 Nov

Cooking salmon in my dishwasher

Late-night footsteps in the laneway – hurrying home – make that Memory Laneway, for this was more than 15 years ago (maybe 20… none of us can remember exactly) – an evening that ran late, a merry dinner party in a fashionably designed coach house in a Toronto laneway, hosted by a friend of the author. My invitation, however, came not from her (the friend) or from him (Bob Blumer, the author), but from Alison Fryer of the Cookbook Store in a quasi-publicistic capacity. Why me? I’m not sure. Unless Alison was  showing a remarkable degree of prescience and knew I would be writing about the evening 15 (20?) years later – tonight, in fact – and trying to remember what exactly took place. I remember Bob Blumer cooked salmon in the dishwasher. And there was an artist’s palette before that with tasty dips of various hallucinatory colours on it, like squeezes of paint. Such shenanigans were new and exciting to me then. I still love them. I don’t think there was dessert.

Cut to now. Bob Blumer, star of the tv shows The Surreal Gourmet and Glutton for Punishment, has a new book out, called Glutton for Pleasure (Whitecap, $29.95). It’s a “best-of” book, a candid collation of recipes, anecdotes, wit and wisdom, summing up his career to date. I am delighted to come across it because I have lent my other Blumer books to ne’er-do-well friends over the years and they have long since disappeared.

Blumer makes his home, famously, under the D of the HOLLYWOOD sign in Los Angeles, but he is often in Toronto and Vancouver and his native Montreal. As fans of his tv shows can attest, he is a bit of a nomad, a culinary troubadour, more a Feste than a Toby Belch for there is a merry beauty in his fooling. He once crossed America in an Airstream trailer he had converted into a mobile kitchen with two huge pieces of toast sticking out of the roof as if the thing were a giant toaster. The first part of this book is a narrative of that road trip; later sections deal with more recent successes – like the time he broke the Guinness World Record for flipping pancakes – 559 in an hour at the Calgary Stampede.

It worked, to be sure.

The book is dedicated to Mimi – I think the same Mimi who had her own unique breakfast place on Bathurst just north of Queen. It was a shrine to cool toys, to the pre-lapsarian-Peewee-Herman aesthetic, and I totally see why she is Blumer’s muse. Perhaps the most valuable lesson Glutton for Pleasure seeks to impart is to not take yourself so seriously. Not in life, and certainly not in the kitchen. The book is larded with puns (my favourite is for a mango yoghurt drink called Lassi Come Home) and a good many home truths. “Some of the best dinner parties I’ve ever attended have taken place in cramped apartments, on rooftops, and with improvised utensils,” writes Blumer. We all know what he means.

And the recipes? They are delightful, look doable, not too bizarre. I shall certainly try Cauliflower Popcorn and Lamb Cupcakes. And here is the Dishwasher-poached Salmon I remember from all those years ago. This afternoon I tested the recipe with a couple of fillets from Kensington Market, sealing them up with olive oil and lemon juice in tightly-wrapped tinfoil, letting the packages sit in the top tray of the dishwasher for a full cycle. They were delicious if a tad overcooked (I have a very efficient German machine). It would definitely be a talking point at any dinner party.

Oddly enough for someone so interested in dramatic appearances, desserts have never been Blumer’s strong point. “When I wrote my first cookbook,” he explains, “I dodged the whole dessert bullet by compiling a list of 10 Ways to Avoid Making Dessert.” He did the same thing in his second book. Things like “Hire an ice-cream truck to swing by after dinner.” And “Dole out chocolate-covered espresso beans one at a time” Or “Open a box of Pepperidge Farm Pirouettes.”

Glutton for Pleasure

This time he bites the bullet with recipes for such delights as bacon brittle (aka pig candy) which he then goes on to use in maple bacon ice cream. Surreal? Well, no – not really. A bacon ice cream just won gold at Toronto’s Gold Medal Plates event. And that’s the real surprise about this book: for a manifesto of surreal gastronomy, it’s amazingly practical.

You can find a copy at the Cookbook Store.


Toronto Gold Medal Plates

05 Nov

Lorenzo Loseto won silver, Frank Dodd won gold, Michael Steh won bronze

Was there ever a better-organized party than the Gold Medal Plates gala in Toronto last night? Long before the VIP reception began, every i had been dotted and every t crossed. Those of us who usually bustle about asking for last-minute things to happen had nothing to do but wait for the fun to begin. And the fun was intense. Alongside Edmonton, this was the biggest party GMP has ever thrown, with 775 guests in attendance in two of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s vast halls. We began the VIP reception with a super selection of Canadian bubblies chosen by National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason, and two delectable little dishes from last year’s champion, David Lee, one of them an awesome boudin noir and beans, the other a reprise of his famous chicken-skin-and-cartilege sensation from last year.

Meanwhile, the chefs had set up their stations in the adjoining hall, some of them going to enormous decorative lengths. But it was the food on the plates that counted where the judges were concerned. The dishes generated a great deal of discussion and the overall vote for the gold and silver contenders was by no means unanimous. In the end, however, our worthy gold medallist had both the majority of the judges’ opinions and the highest marks, albeit by a narrow margin.

Dazzling Olympian Marnie McBean assisted at Chef Steh's station

Taking the bronze medal was chef Michael Steh of Reds Bistro & Wine Bar who credited his mother and also one of the judges, chef David Lee, his former boss, as his inspirations. Chef Steh worked with rabbit in a number of ways. He made a ballontine of the saddle, stuffed with a soft spicy blood sausage, and set a slice of it on the plate beside a slice of firm, garlicky smoked rabbit kolbasa. A third “round” was a confit as soft as rillettes which he formed into a tiny puck, coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Baby vegetables glazed with verjus freshened the flavours and a sliver of armagnac-poached prune was an unforgettable condiment. Baby chanterelles starred in a rich, dark sauce flavoured with Madeira and mustard seeds. Chef Steh’s chosen wine was a particularly successful match, the 2007 Baco Noir Reserve from Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery in Niagara, Ontario.

Our silver medal was awarded to chef Lorenzo Loseto of George, who also won silver in 2007. He built his dish around a slice of Tamworth pork belly, impeccably cooked, crisp on the surface and meltingly soft fat beneath it. The same textural contrast was echoed by some exquisite baby artichokes, soft and yielding inside a crispy crust. Matsutake mushrooms provided a different mouthfeel as did perfect little ricotta cavatelli while the sauces were a reduction of juiced red pepper with a hit of miso and an elderberry compote. It was a luxe and extremely delicious plateful and Chef’s chosen wine, the 2008 Estate Chardonnay from Hidden Bench Vineyards & Winery in Niagara, Ontario, served as a delectable antidote to the richness.

Lorenzo Loseto's delectable offering took silver

Our gold medal winner was Chef Frank Dodd of Hillebrand Winery Restaurant in Niagara. He drew on his long-standing relationship with local meat supplier Dingo Farms to present a trio of pork preparations, one hot, one cold, and one frozen. The hot element was very hot indeed, a demitasse sealed with pastry and containing a beautifully lightweight broth made from ham hocks and prosciutto with diced yellow squash adding its own earthy sweetness to the recipe. Beside it was a triangular slice of dense, meaty head cheese wrapped in prosciutto, the light and dark meat in attractive contrast. The third element was a bacon ice cream served on a teaspoon and crowned with a tissue of bacon sugar. Simultaneously sweet and savoury, the ice cream drew murmurs of admiration from the judges, not least because Chef Dodd somehow prevented it from melting even though it stood next to the piping hot demitasse. Not surprisingly, he paired his dish (very successively) with a Hillebrand wine – the 2008 Trius Red, an elegant blend of Bordeaux varieties – and reduced some of it to a syrup to serve as a sauce for the terrine. So now we have five champions eager to compete at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna next February. Three cities remain: Calgary, Ottawa-Gatineau and St. John’s. I can’t wait to see what transpires.

Frank Dodd's gold medal winner: you can't go wrong with bacon ice cream!